We are not currently meeting 'in-person'

We are not currently meeting 'in-person.'
I have made the difficult decision to stop holding our in-person Sunday night meetings - you can read more about this in my post here. I will be continuing to post weekly content here and in our newsletter. Do remember to sign up for the 'Metta Letter' newsletter below as I will be sending out weekly meditations there.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Weeds

Weeds

The weather where we are has been a bit strange this spring. We had snow at the beginning of April (the latest we have had snow for 82 years apparently), and both April and May have been wetter than usual - even for a persistently damp place like the Pacific Northwest. Now I can't complain, especially as other, not too distant areas are experiencing droughts. Being in the soggy part of the country has its advantages.

And one of those advantages is of course how beautiful it is. The wet weather, combined with a few warm days and generally mild weather otherwise has meant that this whole area is wonderfully green at the moment.

And that goes for my front yard. At the moment it is full of glorious, luxurious thick plants, bursting with color and many shades of green.

I think it looks lovely.

But, of course, the minor downside to this is that ninety percent of the wonderful flora in my yard are weeds.

Now I needed to be told this. I must confess that if you asked me I wouldn't be able to tell you which plants were the weeds, and which were the 'good plants.' I'll be honest with you, they all look great to me.

This division of plants into 'weeds' and 'not-weeds' has always puzzled me. I have asked many people what the true definition of a weed is, but nobody seems to be able to give me a satisfactory answer. The most compelling answer I have heard is that "weeds are plants that are easy to grow." Which, now that I write it down, doesn't feel that satisfactory after all.

I find this arbitrary distinction between weeds and 'good plants' a strong metaphor for how we divide the world into people we like and those we don't. When we practice metta meditation one of the things we learn is that this distinction is every bit as arbitrary. Seven years ago I wrote a short essay on this dilemma. You can find the original here, or I have reproduced it below.

I hope that you find it useful, and that you can enjoy the weeds in your yard - and the metaphoric weeds in your life - over the coming week.

Metta, Chris.


Lovingkindness, Weeds and Judgment

June 14th, 2015


I've always been perplexed by the concept of 'weeds'. The fact that we arbitrarily divide flora into 'good' flowers and 'bad' weeds has always struck me as capricious.

Of course, when we consider Metta or Lovingkindness practice we come up against exactly the same realization - that our division of the world into 'friends' and 'enemies' is equally subjective and unhelpful.

When contemplating this it reminded me of a song I heard in my youth by the Christian singer-songwriter Graham Kendrick. He wrote:

Teach me to love the unlovely O Lord
I don’t know how to do it
Teach me to love the impossible people
I really don’t like
I don’t naturally take to some folks
I can’t make out the way that they are
I just don’t understand other people who aren’t like me at all

Just how radical this acceptance of all beings - including ourselves - is can be seen from the following passage by Ñanamoli Thera in his introduction to "The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon":

Loving-kindness ought to be brought to the point where there are no longer any barriers set between persons, and for this the following example is given: Suppose a man is with a dear, a neutral and a hostile person, himself being the fourth; then bandits come to him and say "we need one of you for human sacrifice." Now if that man thinks "Let then take this one, or that one," he has not yet broken down the barriers, and also if he thinks "Let them take me but not these three," he has not broken down the barriers either. Why not? Because he seeks the harm of him who he wishes to be taken and the welfare of only the other three. It is only when he does not see a single one among the four to be chosen in preference to the other three, and directs his mind quite impartially towards himself and the other three, that he has broken down the barriers

You can read the whole teaching here.

The full audio, including a fully guided Metta meditation is below.


"The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon",
compiled and translated by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/wheel007.html .

Photo by Jon Phillips on Unsplash


Sunday, May 15, 2022

Deteriorata

Deteriorata

Be comforted, that in the face of all irridity and disillusionment,
And despite the changing fortunes of time,
There is always a big future in computer maintenance.

- National Lampoon's Deteriorata, lyrics by Tony Hendra.

There are certain things that really manage to wind me up. Small things that are on the surface annoying, but which somehow seem to automatically send me into full melt-down. You probably have your own triggers, but for me it is badly-written software. You know, the app on your phone that just refuses to allow you to enter what you need to, or the website that sends you into a loop when you try and pay a bill. I work every day with computers and have written a lot of software myself, so I find it doubly frustrating when I feel - rightly or wrongly - that the developers of the program have just done a really sloppy job.

So I felt a lot of empathy recently when I read a piece by meditation teacher Padraig O'Morain where he tells a story about getting his computer repaired. He had taken it to a repair shop once, and in the process of 'repairing' it they introduced a new problem. So he was on the way to take it back to the shop, and was stressing about what their response would be to his new complaint.

It is an interesting thing that very often the things we get angry about haven't actually happened - but instead we project in our head what others might do, and we get angry about that. This is where Padraig O'Morain was, and to cap it all he was stuck in traffic.

It is at this point that he had his insight: He simply said to himself:

My happiness does not depend on this.
This simple realization can be a powerful mantra. As he observes in the article:

I have tended to live my life making the assumption that each thing I do is essential to my happiness and that it will be very bad indeed if I don’t succeed in doing it. I don’t know where this assumption came from and most of the time it has operated outside my conscious awareness. But bringing it into awareness has helped me to realise, in practice, the sheer silliness of this way of looking at things.

I really like this way of re-framing what is going on. By asserting that his happiness was not dependent on the reactions of the repair shop employees he removed the clinging that he was feeling for the outcome. And it is that clinging that causes the stress, the dukkha that causes us to suffer with our anger.

I know this is a lesson I need to take to heart more - especially when it comes to badly written software applications! “My happiness does not depend on this” is a mantra I will be using this week, maybe it will be useful for you, too.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided 30 minute meditation on working with anger. Please feel free to use it in whatever way helps your practice.



Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash




Sunday, May 8, 2022

Stand There

Stand There

Recently I watched a short video essay called "My Religion and My Banned Books" by John Green, one of the 'VlogBrothers.' John Green is probably best known as the author of the highly influential YA novel "The Fault in Our Stars." The book follows the story of a 16 year-old girl dying of thyroid cancer and her romance with a fellow patient. I have not read the book (nor seen the movie that was made of it), but I know that it was a cultural phenomenon among teenagers a few years back and has a strong following amongst that target age-group, especially those who have themselves experienced this kind of loss or suffering.

In the video essay Green talks about his time as a Student Chaplain in a Children's' Hospital. It was this period of time that would eventually become the inspiration for the book. He talks about some of the unspeakable things he witnessed there (he calls them 'obscene') and the challenge of being a Chaplain in that situation. He observes:

[...] if somebody drowning in an ocean of grief, said to me that their loved one had no afterlife, it was not my job to question that; and if somebody told me that their loved one was now in heaven, it was not  my job to question that either. My job was to listen–to really listen. I wasn’t there to solve or fix their pain, which could not be fixed; I was there to hear their pain and acknowledge it.
As my supervisor often told me: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

The advice he was given really resonated with me. When we come across people suffering, or witness situations where everything is falling apart, our instinct is often to try and 'fix' things, or to offer our own opinion on what is happening and what should be done. What Green is saying here is that the wise thing, the courageous thing, the compassionate thing, is just to 'stand there' and be present with the person and their grief.

A while ago I wrote a letter about 'Skillful Words,' where we looked at the Buddha's advice on when to speak and when to stay silent. In it I refer to the Abhaya Sutta where the Buddha gives very clear instructions about when to speak and when to remain silent. Simply put, we are told to consider three things; Firstly whether what we are about to say is true - and if it is not, it should never be said. Secondly, is what we are about to say beneficial to the person hearing it? If it is not, then even if it is true we should refrain from saying it. And finally will it be pleasing for the other person to hear? If it is true and beneficial but not pleasing to hear, then we are encouraged to carefully weigh the timing of when it is said.

You can see from this that the situations that Green found himself in as a Chaplain the skillful thing to do would be to remain silent much of the time. And being silent meant that he was present and available for the children, their families and the loved ones in their time of grief.

For me, as a type-A problem solver, this is an important lesson to learn. My own natural strategy is to try and fix things when they go wrong, or to offer an opinion when I think I 'know' what is right. But I think I need to take this lesson to heart a bit more: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. On hearing the advice "Don’t just do something. Stand there" I assumed that it probably wasn't original with Green's supervisor, even though I had not heard it before. And of course that is the case, with Quote Investigator observing that it is the type of reversal of a common cliche that probably was coined by many people independently. The earliest version they found was from someone quoting Martin Gabel in 1945.

P.P.S. I have linked below a fully guided  meditation on Skillful Words. Please feel free to use it in your own practice in whatever way you find helpful.















Sunday, May 1, 2022

Severance

Severance

I recently watched, and enjoyed, the Apple TV show 'Severance.' Now I know that psychological Sci-Fi thrillers may not be your cup of tea, but like all the best examples of the genre it chooses to ask some very interesting questions, in this case on the nature of 'self.'

Without giving away any spoilers (just in case it is your cup of tea) the premise of the show is that scientists have developed a brain implant that can switch on - or off - memories. By doing so people can partition their lives into two, where the memories from one 'life' are completely separated from the other. In the show, individuals choose to be 'severed' so that when they are at work they have a completely different set of memories to when they are outside. Thus the person while at work has no memories - or knowledge - of their outside life and, conversely, while going about their daily life they have no memories of what they did or experienced at work. The show thus asks questions about whether the two 'versions' of the individual are the same or different people, and also raises ethical questions of whether one 'version' can be abusing the other - even if they are physically the same person and entered into the situation voluntarily.

I won't go into more details about what transpires, but I think anyone who has read any Buddhist thinking will be immediately recognizing some of the core of what is being explored - specifically the relationship between our experience of memory, and our sense of 'self.'

Memory is a very powerful part of how we tend to see ourselves, and we intuitively feel that it is part of what makes up our 'self.' And yet memory is extremely complex and nuanced, with the ways our brains process and recall things being far from reliable. We all have to come to terms with the fact that our memories are fickle, and can be lost, distorted or fabricated. Memories fade, we misremember, we can even be lead to believe we experienced things that we did not. So while our memories my seem very dear to us, we cannot say that they define us. In fact, if we go through all the things that we might think do define us - such as our memories, our bodies, our minds, our plans, our hopes, our personalities, our values - we will find that not a single one, no matter how dear or how tied up to our sense of self, actually is our self.

This idea - that no matter how deeply we contemplate each of these things we will not identify them as self - is called 'anattā', usually translated as 'not-self.' We are taught (in e.g. The Ananda Sutta) that 'all phenomena are not-self.'

Now, there is a very common misconception here that what this is saying is that there is no self. This however is a misconception - if you read the short Ananda Sutta linked above you will see that the Buddha explicitly refused to say that there was no self. Instead, he emphasized the true insight, that all phenomena are not-self.

What does this mean? For us, it means that the things that we might cling to as being our 'self' - our bodies, memories, personalities - are not intrinsically 'self.' By beginning to weed out our attachment to these things we can start to experience liberation. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says in his essay No-self or Not-self?:

...the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there's the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what's experiencing it, or whether or not it's a self?

So while these questions might make great fodder for Sci-Fi thrillers, for us we can use them as stepping-stones, identifying on each step one less thing we need to cling on to.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'Self and Others.' When we do metta (loving-kindness) meditation one of the things we realize is that our natural separation of 'self' and 'other' is arbitrary - that drawing a line around 'me' is misleading and does not define 'self.' Please feel free to use this fully guided audio meditation in whatever way you feel helps you in your practice.



"No-self or Not-self?", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 24 November 2013,
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/notself2.html










Sunday, April 24, 2022

Mirrors

Mirrors

I've been going down a little bit of a rabbit-hole recently. Now to be clear, I love rabbit-holes. Any opportunity to learn a little bit more about an obscure or eclectic subject is a lot of fun for me. Whether it is a technical subject related to my work, or a new genre of music, music theory or some historical trivia - I just love diving into the research, and then trying to bring it all together again in a coherent way as I 'resurface.'

One of my recent rabbit-holes has been trying to get a better understanding of the Buddha's teachings to householders. Now, 'householder' is a bit of a catch-all term for the people the Buddha spoke with who were not monks, who had not renounced their daily lives and who were still living with jobs, spouses, children and 'worldly' duties. Some of these people were very rich, some had political power, some were simply tradespeople or business-people. I suspect that most of us reading this would fall into the bucket of 'householder' one way or another.

The thing that is fascinating is that in the Pali writings the level, subjects and even goals of the teachings vary depending on the person receiving the teaching. Often we look at the teachings one-by-one and assume that they are all homogeneous, but they are clearly not so. Conversely, there is often an assumption that teachings for monks are fully appropriate for those of us who are householders - and I think that when we do that we miss a lot of nuance in the teachings.

So that is my current rabbit hole ('subject of enquiry' sounds way too grand!). And it has been quite illuminating. And I was going to write about some of what I was learning in this letter.

The key word there is 'was.' As I started to sketch out what I was going to say I couldn't quite put it together. I feel I have learned a lot, but I can't - at a high level - put that into words, at least not into words that I would feel confident in sharing.

In the Sangaravo Sutta we are told that the Brahman Sangaarava asked the Buddha the following question:

...how does it come about that sometimes sacred words I have long studied are not clear to me, not to mention those I have not studied? And how is it too that sometimes other sacred words that I have not so studied are clear to me, not to mention those I have studied?

I really resonate with this question, and I can feel the frustration in the poor Brahmin's words. In many ways my inability to summarize the learning from my own personal 'rabbit-hole' is a symptom of the above. Some things have resonated and are clear, other things are still opaque. So what was the lesson for the Brahmin?

The Buddha replies by describing a number of imperfect mirrors - a bowl with water that has been dyed with strong colors, a bowl of boiling water, a bowl with moss and plants in it, a bowl with the wind blowing ripples on it, and a bowl of muddy water in a dark room. All of these, we are told, would not allow someone with good eyesight to see the reflection of their own face, as it really was. The simile is that the imperfections in the bowls are like how it is when we hear or read teachings with imperfections in our own hearts. In particular, when our hearts are overwhelmed by any of the five 'hindrances' of sense-desires, ill-will, sloth-and-torpor, worry-and-flurry, and doubt-and-wavering. If, instead we come to teachings with clear hearts it is like we now look at our reflection in clear, still water:

But, Brahman, when a man dwells with his heart not possessed, not overwhelmed by sense-desires... ill-will... sloth-and-torpor... worry-and-flurry... doubt-and-wavering... [now with bowls full of water that is 'clear, limpid, pellucid, set in the open']... then he knows and sees, as it really is, what is to his own profit, to the profit of others, to the profit of both himself and others. Then even sacred words he has not long studied are clear to him, not to mention those he has studied.

So what do I take away from this? Clearly there are aspects of the studies that I have been doing that are still opaque to me, and what this is saying is that I should examine my own heart, my own motivations and what I am bringing to the words I am reading. So that is what I plan to do. I may in the future write more about what I have learned about the teachings to householders, but for today the message is that our hearts dictate the clarity of the 'mirrors' of the teachings we receive.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. I'd love to know if this subject of the specific teachings for householders is of interest to you. Is this something you would like me to write more on (assuming I can get my bowl clear enough!)?

I have linked below a meditation on 'Not Trying' - it seemed an appropriate choice as a meditation to clear our hearts and re-align out motivations. Feel free to use it in any way that helps you in your practice.



"Sangaravo Sutta: Sangarava" (SN 46.55), translated from the Pali by Maurice O'Connell Walshe.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn46/sn46.055.wlsh.html .


Photo by Kevin Bezuidenhout on Unsplash


Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter - Again

Easter - Again

Happy Easter everyone! It's the day when - according to some complex calculation - the Western Christian Church commemorates the death and resurrection of Christ. It is also, not coincidentally, at roughly the same time of the year as other older celebrations such as the Spring Equinox, May Day, Passover and Ēostre.

What these have in common is that they are all about rebirth, the return to fertility after the winter season. For agricultural communities this was (and is) hugely important as it marks the time when the land can once again be worked. Eggs and bunnies are not-so-subtle allusions to this return to fertility.

For me I like to treat this time of the year as an opportunity to reset and re-start. I have written about this before, in 2015, 2016, 2020 and 2021 - and now in 2022 I am going to do something completely different!

I joke. I'm actually going to do exactly the same thing once again. For me the cyclical, repetitive nature of the return of the seasons is a powerful reminder that we can begin again. And every year I return to the same teaching from Sharon Salzberg:

The critical element in meditation practice is beginning again. Everyone loses focus at times, everyone loses interest at times, and everyone gets distracted over and over again. What is essential, and also incredibly transforming, is realizing that we have the ability to begin again, without blaming or judging ourselves, without thinking we have failed, without losing heart, we can, and need to, constantly be beginning again.

The reason I return to this same passage year after year is that it is so inspiring - and so compassionate. We all struggle with practice sometimes, we all need to re-boot and re-start. Of course that is something we can do at any time, but having the yearly reminder from the turn of the season helps keep it in our minds.

So whether or not you celebrate or recognize Easter - or any of the other celebrations of this season - we can all use the turning of the season as inspiration to reevaluate our practice - and begin again.

Metta, Chris.

 

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on beginning again. Feel free to use it in whatever way you feel helps.


Photo by Степан Галагаев on Unsplash

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Timeless

Timeless

I have been fascinated by all things to do with space and astronomy since I was a small boy, and I love to try to keep up with the latest advances in our understanding of the cosmos. I say 'try to keep up,' as my formal training in physics ended at the end of High School (my physics teacher never forgave me for choosing to major in mathematics).

That said I continue to read all the PopSci books and watch the documentaries just to get a little 'fix' on the infinite. I find that there is little more mind-expanding - and humbling - than learning a little about the vastness and complexity of our universe. As Douglas Adams once observed:

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.

So this week I was excited to read about the latest discovery in cosmology, where a team of astronomers have observed an object (poetically named HD1) that is 13.5 Billion Light Years away, making it the most distant astronomical object ever observed. To put this in perspective the universe is generally accepted to be 13.8 Billion years old, so we are observing the object as it was shortly after the birth of this universe.

And this, of course, is where things tend to get a bit tricky. When we look at very distant objects we are not seeing them as they are now, we are seeing them as they were when the light left them, which in this case is billions of years ago. Time and distance get intermingled and it is easy to start getting confused - even the distance measures we use - Light Years - are simultaneously a measure of time. When we see an object one Light Year away we are seeing it as it was a year ago. Sometimes it is easier just to accept that the universe is "vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big."

These might seem like very modern concerns, but in  fact people have been asking questions about whether or not the universe is finite or eternal for thousands of years. In the suttas we are told about a monk called Malunkyaputta, who I have to say I identify with personally as he is the classic over-thinker! We are told that while meditating Malunkyaputta realizes there are many deep questions that he has no good answer to, and that the Buddha has not addressed them to his satisfaction. Getting completely wrapped around the axle with these things he decides that he will confront the Buddha with an ultimatum:

I'll go ask the Blessed One about this matter. If he declares to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,' that 'The cosmos is not eternal,' that 'The cosmos is finite,' that 'The cosmos is infinite,' that 'The soul & the body are the same,' that 'The soul is one thing and the body another,' that 'After death a Tathagata exists,' that 'After death a Tathagata does not exist,' that 'After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,' or that 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,' then I will live the holy life under him. If he does not declare to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,'... or that 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,' then I will renounce the training and return to the lower life.

I recommend that you read the whole sutta, as the Buddha's answer is fascinating as he steers Malunkyaputta away from these complex issues that were holding him back and towards a deeper understanding of the dhamma.

There is a Pali word akaliko, which is usually translated as 'timeless.' Like many Pali concepts it is richer than the simple word 'timeless' as it has connotations of being 'outside of time,' 'not subject to time' or 'immediately effective.'

There's a recurring joke amongst physicists (often erroneously attributed to Einstein) that 'time is what keeps everything from happening at once.' In some ways akaliko is outside of time, happening at all times at once.

This might all seem horribly abstract and academic, but getting a glimpse of this timelessness can be very valuable to our practice. Ajahn Chah put it beautifully when he said:

In practicing, don't think that you have to sit in order for it to be meditation, that you have to walk back and forth in order for it to be meditation. Don't think like that. Meditation is simply a matter of practice. Whether you're giving a sermon, sitting here listening, or going away from here, keep up the practice in your heart. Be alert to what's proper and what's not. [...]

Ajaan Mun once said that we have to make our practice the shape of a circle. A circle never comes to an end. Keep it going continually. Keep the practice going continually without stop. I listened to him and I thought, "When I've finished listening to this talk, what should I do?"

The answer is to make your alertness akaliko: timeless. Make sure that the mind knows and sees what's proper and what's not, at all times.

We can choose to struggle with complex concepts like time and the universe as Malunkyaputta did, or we can work to make our practice akaliko: timeless in our hearts.

Metta, Chris.


P.S.: I have written before about the notion of the 'spacious present,' which is related to this concept of timelessness or akaliko. I have linked below a fully guided meditation on this idea, feel free to use it in whatever way is helpful to you.

 


"Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya" (MN 63), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html .

In Simple Terms: 108 Dhamma Similes", by Ajahn Chah, translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/chah/insimpleterms.html .


Photo: HD1, object in red, appears at the center of a zoom-in image. Credit: Harikane et al.


Sunday, April 3, 2022

Rituals

 Rituals

 I went to church this morning. Now those of you who know me well are probably a bit surprised by that, as by my own reckoning I haven't been to a Christian church service for around twenty-five years. And yet today I went to church - voluntarily. I am currently in Philadelphia on business, and my colleague decided that he wanted to go to church and I said I would tag along with him.

The church was an impressive building on Rittenhouse square, and the Episcopalian service was fairly 'high' compared to what I was used to when I was young (Rite 1 if that means anything to you). The people were lovely and friendly and I enjoyed the music - the organist and choir-master clearly loved their C20th classical arrangements with lots of spicy dissonances.

And of course there was a lot of ritual. I was keeping an eye firmly on those around me to know whether I should be standing or sitting. An unexpected godsend of the fact we were masked meant that nobody knew whether I was singing, chanting or staying silent.

Having been brought up myself in the free-church / charismatic movement (much longer story - I am a PK believe it or not) I had been taught that all this kind of ritual was at best 'empty' and at worst deceptive. When in my later years I started to follow a Buddhist path I actually had difficulty initially with the more ritualized elements - I have very strong memories of when I first allowed myself to light a stick of incense for a Buddha statue.

Some forms of ritual play an important part in many sanghas - the exact form and level varies from tradition to tradition. But whether it is chanting suttas, entering the zendo with your left-foot first, the bells or the prostrations, there are many types of ritual that we may follow.

Even in our private practice we might light a candle, ring a bell or even simply make a cup of tea - all of these can be part of a ritual.

So it may come as a surprise to some that a 'belief in rites and rituals' is actually one of the five 'lower fetters,' things that we are encouraged to 'cut off.'

And which are the five lower fetters? Self-identity views, uncertainty, grasping at precepts & practices*, sensual desire, & ill will.

This 'grasping at precepts and practices' is a warning that indeed ritual can be empty, that we can falsely elevate the act of the practice above the purpose of the practice.

So what is the point of ritual? As we practice we work on training our minds, on removing our delusions. The practices are merely vehicles to help with that - my first teacher Achalavajra used to call them 'technologies' - and that is a great way to think of them. The purpose of the rituals - of reciting a sutta, ringing a bell, entering a room mindfully - are to place our minds in a place conducive for us to do the work. It is when we get this wrong, when we mistake the ritual for the work, that we start to 'grasp at the precepts and practices' - which as we know is a fetter and a hindrance on our path.

I have written before about the metaphor of 'leaving the boat' - that having used a practice to help us on our way we need to be prepared to leave it at the far shore. Our rituals may be the boats we will have to leave behind. But for now a ritual may be exactly what you need to help get your mind to the place where you can do the work - even if that ritual is just a cup of tea.

Metta, Chris.

(*) What Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates here as 'grasping at precepts and practices,' Acharya Buddharakkhita renders as 'belief in rites and rituals.'

I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on the metaphor of 'leaving the boat.' Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.


 "Sanyojana Sutta: Fetters" (AN 10.13), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 4 July 2010,
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.013.than.html .

Photo by Content Pixie on Unsplash

 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Teddy Bear

Teddy Bear

Today, if I may, I am going to tell you a rather sad story. I want you to promise not to laugh, as there is absolutely nothing funny about the tragic tale I am about to recount.

The events I am going to cover took place in an area of Southwest England called Wookey Hole, just a few miles away from where I lived many years ago. The events in question took place in 2006, a few years after I had left the area.

Wookey Hole is known for a series of spectacular caves and is a well known tourist attraction. The most recent owner of the caves was Gerry Cottle, a larger-than-life circus operator and showman. Think of a modern-day P.T. Barnum with an English accent and you won't be far off.

Cottle was responsible for a great expansion of the tourist attractions around the caves, bringing in a lot of side attractions such as Animatronic Dinosaurs, a Fairy Garden, a Cave Diving Museum, a Paper Making Museum, a Vintage Penny Arcade and a Pirate Island Adventure Golf Course. You know the type of place.

One of the additional attractions is a Children's Museum which has a large collection of vintage Teddy Bears. In 2006 they secured the loan of a Steiff Teddy Bear called Mabel that had once belonged to Elvis Presley. The bear was apparently insured for £40,000 (about $60,000). It was to be the jewel of the collection.

I now want to introduce you to Barney. Barney was a guard dog, a Doberman, who had been working with Security Guard Greg West for around six years. Barney's job was to patrol the attractions at night, ensuring that there were no threats or intruders.

Can you see where this is going? What could possibly go wrong?

Rather than give you a blow-by-blow account of the gruesome events I will just fast forward to the report by the BBC, where they quote Wookey Hole's General Manager, who informed them:

About 100 bears were caught up in this frenzied attack, some were merely little chews, whereas some of them had some quite devastating injuries.

Heads pulled off, arms, legs here and there, it was a total carnage really. I've never seen such a mess, there was stuffing, fluff and bear bits everywhere.

And, in all this carnage, Elvis' bear Mabel lost her head.

The story of this Teddy-Massacre spread quickly, with articles on the shocking events appearing on CNN, The Guardian, China Daily, The New York Times, Forbes and many, many other news outlets. The magazine Psychology Today even wrote a piece with the wonderful title "Toys Are Made for Dogs to Rip: the Wookey Hole Cave Massacre," giving their psychological viewpoint on the wisdom of leaving a dog alone with Teddy Bears.

It's a sad but compelling story, and one that I have recounted to friends many times since I first read about it fifteen years ago.

And, of course, it is a total fabrication.

In 2020, a year before he died, Gerry Cottle gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph where he finally spilled the beans:

At Wookey Hole we opened a teddy bear museum and pretended one of the bears belonged to Elvis Presley and that a guard dog had chewed it up. My friend in Vegas said: “I can’t believe it, Gerry. You’re front page news!”

Yes, it was a completely made-up publicity stunt, so typical of Gerry Cottle. But for a long time I believed it - after all, all those reputable news sources must have done their research, right? It was such a wonderful story, with sadness, humor, a moral and decapitation - everything that a good story should have.

Having realized that one of my favorite stories was just that - a story - I immediately thought of the well known Kalama Sutta. The Kalamas were a people who had experienced a long litany of spiritual teachers passing through, all of whom had espoused different paths and teachings, and who had left the Kalamas feeling confused and helpless. The Kalamas were suffering from an over-abundance of fake teachers.

The Buddha visited the Kalamas, and they aired their issues with him:

Lord, there are some brahmans & contemplatives who come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. And then other brahmans & contemplatives come to Kesaputta. They expound & glorify their own doctrines, but as for the doctrines of others, they deprecate them, revile them, show contempt for them, & disparage them. They leave us absolutely uncertain & in doubt: Which of these venerable brahmans & contemplatives are speaking the truth, and which ones are lying?

Sounds familiar? I think anyone who has walked into a New-Age bookstore will identify with the poor Kalamas! 

The Buddha replied with this (now often-quoted) teaching:

Of course you are uncertain, Kalamas. Of course you are in doubt. When there are reasons for doubt, uncertainty is born. So in this case, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering' — then you should abandon them.

Now this powerful reply is often misunderstood as a kind of 'ignore anyone else, anything goes!' approach to the spiritual path, which is of course the opposite of what it is truly saying. In his Translator's Note to the above passage Thanissaro Bhikkhu gives the following wise explanation:

Although this discourse is often cited as the Buddha's carte blanche for following one's own sense of right and wrong, it actually says something much more rigorous than that. Traditions are not to be followed simply because they are traditions. Reports (such as historical accounts or news) are not to be followed simply because the source seems reliable. One's own preferences are not to be followed simply because they seem logical or resonate with one's feelings. Instead, any view or belief must be tested by the results it yields when put into practice; and — to guard against the possibility of any bias or limitations in one's understanding of those results — they must further be checked against the experience of people who are wise. The ability to question and test one's beliefs in an appropriate way is called appropriate attention. The ability to recognize and choose wise people as mentors is called having admirable friends. [T]hese are, respectively, the most important internal and external factors for attaining the goal of the practice.

We are living in a time when we have unprecedented access to a wide range of teachings. This is a blessing and a curse, as it can leave us being buffeted about just like the Kalamas. Fake news is a recent trendy term, but the reality is that there have always been confusing and unreliable voices out there. We need to use discernment with how we consume both news and teachings.

Sadly, the story of Barney was one of those unreliable reports; however we can still learn a lot from the hapless canine.

Metta, Chris.

An important part of what we are taught in the Kalama Sutta is this idea of surrounding ourselves with 'admirable friends,' the wise mentors that we intentionally bring into our lives. This is one of the things that we do through being formally or informally part of a sangha. I have linked here a fully guided meditation on having gratitude for these 'admirable friends' - feel free to use it if you wish in your own practice.



"Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html .


Photo by Oxana Lyashenko on Unsplash








Saturday, March 19, 2022

Mustard Seeds

Mustard Seeds

While I was out driving earlier this week I passed a farm called "Mustard Seed Farms," and it made me think of how evocative the humble mustard seed is. Small and perfectly round the mustard seed is a pungent spice and will grow into a plant with striking flowers and edible leaves. There are records of its use dating back nearly six thousand years. I suspected that the name of the farm was a reference to it's use in the synoptic gospels as a metaphor for faith, and a quick search later confirmed that this was the case.

The humble mustard seed is also used in the early Buddhist commentaries in the well-known but heart-wrenching story of Kisa 'Skinny' Gotami. In the commentary we are told that Gotami had a young son, who "running back and forth and running all around, while playing met his end." Gotami, understandably, was so distraught she went into what we, in modern times, would call denial:

Under the influence of her sorrow-to-the-point-of-madness,
she took the dead corpse on her hip and
wandered in the city from the door of one house to another
pleading: "Give medicine to me for my son!"
People reviled her, saying "What good is medicine?"
She did not grasp what they were saying.

Eventually someone took pity on her and suggested she talk with the Buddha, so she went to find him at the monastery and said:

"Blessed One, give medicine to me for my son!"
The master, seeing her situation, said,
"Go, having entered the city,
into whatever house has never before experienced any death,
and take from them a mustard seed."

And so, of course, she went door to door looking for a mustard seed from a house that had never experienced death. Now the interesting thing here is that in this story the mustard seed medicine is not a metaphor, but more of a MacGuffin. The mustard seed was a cheap and common spice, and most households would have had plenty - and we are told that all the households she went to were willing to offer some to her. So getting the seed wasn't the issue. The thing was, as Gotami soon realized, there wasn't a household in the city that had not experienced death.

Realizing this Gotami took her son and laid him in the charnel ground. Having done this, she returned to the Buddha:

Then the master said to her,
"Have you obtained, Gotami, the mustard seed?"
"Finished, sir, is the matter of the mustard seed" she said.
"You have indeed restored me."

Now, there's quite a lot to unpack in this familiar story, and it is worth spending time contemplating it. It could be argued that the Buddha's action, sending a poor grieving woman on a fruitless search, seems a little cruel. In reality the Buddha did have compassion, but knew that for her to come to terms with what had happened she needed to open her eyes, to gain some wisdom as to how the world is. I have written before about the way that wisdom and compassion go hand in hand, and I think that the story of Skinny Gotami is a beautiful example of this.

And, we are told, Gotami soon went on to become enlightened. The tragedy of losing her son was real, but the wisdom she gained was the most compassionate gift that could be given.

 Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on how Wisdom and Compassion go hand in hand. Feel free to use it if you wish as part of your practice.


"Skinny Gotami and the Mustard Seed" (ThigA 10.1), by Andrew Olendzki.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/noncanon/comy/thiga-10-01-ao0.html .

Photo by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash






Saturday, March 12, 2022

Cats and Frogs

Cats and Frogs

I live with a monster.

An incredibly cute, furry little monster, but a monster none the less. She is at one with her cat-ness, doing the kind of things that only cats can do. She is the ultimate arbiter of which things are allowed to be on shelves and tables, and which things need to be gently coaxed over the edge and onto the floor. And, should you dare to pet her for five seconds more than the perfect amount you will lose an arm.

Like all cats she spends at least seventy percent of her time asleep, especially now she is getting older. I was watching her sleep earlier this week, and was wondering what she might be thinking. It struck me that while I could never know exactly what she was feeling and thinking, I could be fairly sure of what she wasn't doing. She wasn't worrying about what she had achieved in life, she wasn't thinking to herself that she needed to be doing more. I've never known a cat worry about getting a promotion, becoming famous, owning the best house or creating the perfect work of art before they die.

Of course, as humans we have the extra gift of having an awareness of our own mortality. We tend to channel this into worry about whether we have achieved enough. It is the classic case of our focus on what we have done, versus what we are. Doing versus being.

In the Dhammapada we are given a clear instruction of what an awareness of our mortality should inspire us to do:

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

Note carefully what this is saying, what this says about our priorities. Recognizing our mortality means that we should work on our relationships with each other. Not stress about our achievements, not worry about what we have made or bought, but simply make sure that we have no ill-will or 'bad blood' with anyone.

Even in our practice we can make the same mistake of focusing on achievement rather than just dwelling in the practice. As I was contemplating the lesson from the cat I was reminded of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi's well-known analogy of the frog. Addressing a group who might have thought that they were doing something 'special' in zazen (meditation) he says:

But look at the frog.  A frog also sits like this but it has no idea of zazen.  And if you watch what he does…if something annoys him he will do like this (making a face).  If something to eat comes he will eat (imitating a frog snapping at an insect) and he eats sitting.  Actually that is our zazen.  We are not doing any special thing.  We should think that we are doing some special thing.

Every now and then it is good to remind ourselves that life - and our practice - is not about what we do, or what we achieve, but about what we become. Recognizing our mortality means that we ensure that our relationships with others are loving and compassionate. Like the cat and the frog, we have comfort in our own being, without stressing about what we have - or haven't - achieved.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on 'Achieving nothing.' If it is useful to you feel free to use it in your practice.



"Yamakavagga: Pairs" (Dhp I), translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html .



Photo by u/TheTacoWombat on www.reddit.com/r/buddhistcats







Sunday, March 6, 2022

Two Battles

Two Battles

With everything that is going on in the world right now I thought it would be instructive to look back at some early accounts of what the Buddha said about war, and those who go to war. In the Samyutta Nikaya there is a story of two battles, which I believe can speak directly to our response to the current situation.

The battles in question were between King Pasenadi of Kosala and his nephew King Ajatasattu of Magadha. Pasenadi was a follower and acquaintance of the Buddha, but was still a king and did king-y things, including going into battle.

In the first battle of our story Ajatasattu raised an army and attacked his uncle. A fierce battle followed and Pasenadi's troops were overwhelmed. Defeated, Pasenadi retreated back to his capital.

Now this was before the age of social media, so news of Pasenadi's defeat first came to some of the Buddha's monks as they were out in the city collecting alms. I like to imagine them scurrying back to the Buddha with some great gossip to share!

Having heard the news the Buddha replied:

"Monks, King Ajatasattu has evil friends, evil comrades, evil companions, whereas King Pasenadi has fine friends, fine comrades, fine companions. Yet for now, King Pasenadi will lie down tonight in pain, defeated."

That is what the Blessed One said. Having said that, the One Well-Gone, the Teacher, said further:

Winning gives birth to hostility.
Losing, one lies down in pain.
The calmed lie down with ease,
    having set
    winning & losing
        aside.

Here the Buddha clearly comments on the moral distinction between the attacker and the one attacked, but observes that both the 'winner' and the 'loser' are both harmed - the loser in pain, the winner now shrouded in hostility. He shows that the more noble way is to set aside winning and losing, that those who have done that are the only ones truly at ease.

This wasn't the end of the story, because there follows another battle. Once again Ajatasattu raises an army and marches against his uncle Pasenadi. Pasenadi raises another army to counter-atack and this time prevails, defeating the invaders and taking all of the troops and equipment hostage, together with Ajatasattu himself. Pasanadi considers what to do with the captured Ajatasattu, but eventually decides that the more noble thing to do is to allow him to leave with his life.

Again, the monks find out about all this while they are in the town, and again scurry back to tell the Buddha the latest news. Having heard this the Buddha says the following:

A man may plunder
as long as it serves his ends,
but when others are plundered,
    he who has plundered
    gets plundered in turn.

A fool thinks,
'Now's my chance,'
as long as his evil
has yet to ripen.
But when it ripens,
the fool
    falls
        into pain.

Killing, you gain
        your killer.
Conquering, you gain one
        who will conquer you;
insulting,     insult;
harassing,     harassment.

And so, through the cycle of action,
    he who has plundered
    gets plundered in turn.
It's hard not to see the parallels in these two stories with what is playing out on the global stage right now. For me, the key part of the response is the Buddha's observation of the 'cycle of action' - that aggressors only set the stage for further aggression, and may well become the victims of that aggression. To wage war and assume that there is an end, that it can be won and that's it, is pure foolishness. Aggression only generates suffering, to both the victims and - eventually - to the aggressor. As the Dhammapada says:

As long as evil has yet to ripen,
the fool mistakes it for honey.
But when that evil ripens,
the fool falls into
                   pain.
So what are we to make of this, given what is happening right now? It is obvious that we should be extending compassion towards the victims of the aggression we are seeing in the world. That is easy to see, and easy to understand, and is naturally our first reaction. Somewhat harder is to recognize that there are those nominally on the aggressor's side who have been dragged into this and will also be suffering - the citizens and even the soldiers. Most hard is to recognize that those who have actively chosen and caused the conflict have set in motion a cycle that will only cause their own pain, and to have compassion for them.

As I mentioned in last week's letter feeling compassion for the aggressor may be over the 'edge' for many of us right now as we see what is happening. However, learning to have compassion for those who are suffering - and for those who caused that suffering - should be our intention. Even if it's something that is hard to do right now, we can recognize that they have started a 'cycle of action' and will eventually fall into pain themselves.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided Karuna Bhavana (cultivation of compassion) meditation where we practice generating compassion for both those who suffer and those who cause that suffering. Feel free to use it in your own practice if you think it will help.



 "Sangama Sutta: A Battle (1)" (SN 3.14), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn03/sn03.014.than.html .

"Sangama Sutta: A Battle (2)" (SN 3.15), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn03/sn03.015.than.html .

"Balavagga: Fools" (Dhp V), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition),
30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.05.than.html .

 

Photo by Sahand Babali on Unsplash

Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Edge

The Edge

I have to admit that it is hard to write today's Metta Letter, to talk about lovingkindness and goodwill in a time where there is aggression and suffering in the world and when once again meaningless war is causing so much hurt. What does it mean to have unconditional metta in such a time?

Of course, the real answer is that it is more important, more relevant at these times, but working through that can be hard.

I am reminded of the wonderful words of Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett's 'Carpe Jugulum' when she admonishes a young priest in this way:

‘There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’

‘It’s a lot more complicated than that -’

‘No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.’

People as things. It is easy to see how in the current crisis that is exactly what we are seeing playing out. Real people - with hopes, dreams and faults just like you and me - are seen as just being 'things in the way.'

In our metta meditation we work to cultivate in ourselves the ability to view all beings with goodwill and lovingkindness, from ourselves to the most difficult of enemies. My first teacher encouraged us to identify in our practice the 'edges,' the points at which we started to stumble and reject sending metta. This could be for any of the people in the practice - even for our self. Generating goodwill for myself is hard when I remember what an ass I've been to someone earlier in the week. And if that's difficult then how much harder is it to feel lovingkindness for a dictator causing death and suffering across the world?

It's for reasons like this that Thanissaro Bhikkhu often prefers the translation of 'goodwill' for the Pali 'metta.' I highly recommend that you read his full essay on this, but I often find that when 'at the edge,' focusing on goodwill makes more sense.

As we go through this week we will probably all feel conflicting feelings regarding the current events and the people on all sides of the conflict. I'd like to suggest that if you do have conflicting feelings that isn't a bad thing - it shows that you are not 'switching off' your sense of compassion. At the end of the day this is a challenging time, but we can feel compassion for those suffering and still recognize that those perpetrating the violence are people, even if we find it hard to feel goodwill for them right now. Those who are causing the suffering do so because they treat people as things, let's not make the same mistake.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided Metta Bhavana (cultivation of goodwill and lovingkindness) meditation where we explore the 'edges,' the points where difficulty begins. This can be a challenging practice, but as I often say 'if you find it hard you're probably doing it right!' Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way helps. If you have never tried the whole practice before this could be a good one to start with.


Photo by Alan Tang on Unsplash


















Saturday, February 19, 2022

About That Bruno

 

About That Bruno

I'm going to start this by apologizing to any of you who have younger children, as you have probably been unable to get away from Bruno for the last six weeks. It is not an overstatement to say that the song "We Don't Talk About Bruno" from the recent Disney movie Encanto has been a huge phenomenon, topping the charts in the US, UK and many other countries. It also went viral on Tik-Tok and other platforms and is the most successful song from a Disney movie ever. And if your children are the right age, you probably haven't been able to escape it either. Sorry about that.

I have written about earworms before, but for those of you who are still blissfully unaware here is a little bit of background on the movie and the dreaded song in particular (don't worry, I will avoid any spoilers in case you choose to watch the movie later - which I would recommend).

Encanto is a piece of magical-realism set in Colombia. The story revolves around a multi-generational family living together in a beautiful casita, some of whom have special magical 'gifts.'  If you have read any Gabriel García Márquez this might seem very familiar to you! The 'family secret' is that Bruno has been ostracized and has left the family. When the main protagonist Mirabel asks about her Tio Bruno, they explain it all in the song "We Don't Talk About Bruno." If you wish you can listen to the whole song here.

The reason for Bruno's disgrace is that his 'gift' is that he can see into the future, and this, of course, is misinterpreted by the family as him causing the things he foresees. So let's have a look at the things prophet Bruno foretells. The list of his alleged visions start with family members being told that there would be rain on their wedding day (isn't that ironic?). Then various villagers add that he foretold:

  • A goldfish would die;
  • A middle-aged man would grow a gut;
  • An older priest would loose his hair.

Two younger family members then add that he foretold that they would struggle with love.

The humor of the song is of course that it doesn't take a prophet to predict any one of these things. Bruno is just aware of the human condition. He was ostracized not for his prophetic ability but because he saw the world as it really was.

I was reading earlier this week the well-known passage where The Buddha explains this to King Pasenadi:

Great king, no one who is born is free from aging and death.
Even those affluent khattiyas—rich, with great wealth and property, with abundant gold and silver, abundant treasures and commodities, abundant wealth and grain—because they have been born, are not free from aging and death.
Even those affluent brahmins…affluent householders—rich with abundant wealth and grain—because they have been born, are not free from aging and death.
Even those monks who are arahants, whose taints are destroyed, who have lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached their own goal, utterly destroyed the fetters of existence, and are completely liberated through final knowledge: even for them this body is subject to breaking up, subject to being laid down.
What is interesting here are the three examples given - the rich, the afluent brahmins, and the pious monks. No-one escapes the reality. I wonder what some of the monks listening thought - I am sure there was a bit of a 'wait a minute!' moment for some of them.

Sometimes we choose to forget the reality of this world. Our goldfish will die, middle-aged men will grow guts, our hair will fall out, it will rain when it's least convenient, and young people will struggle with love.

Yet the world is still a wonderful place. The only issue comes when we choose to delude ourselves into denying the inevitability of our own impermanence.

Disney movies may or may not be your thing - but if you do choose to see it (I personally loved it) spare a thought for poor Tio Bruno. He was only telling the truth.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on Impermanence. Feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way helps.



 Aging and Death, From SN 3.3 translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Photo: "Encanto," from left: Mirabel Madrigal (voice: Stephanie Beatriz), Bruno (voice: John Leguizamo), 2021
© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures